Attachment Theory in Adults – An Explanation
Note. The following was taken from the literature review written for my doctorate in attachment, intimacy, and sexual behaviour for the purposes of educational material.
Attachment is the process of human emotional, relational, and brain development through which we learn how to relate to ourselves, others, and the world around us. Attachment was first observed by John Bowlby (1950’s) and later clarified by behavioural researcher Mary Ainsworth (1960’s).
We are all born with the need to attach or bond with others, and this also occurs in all other mammals. From an evolutionary framework, this attachment occurs to keep us safe while we are young and vulnerable, over our infancy and early childhood years. We attach to the immediate caregivers who are responsible for feeding, sheltering, and supporting us, in whichever form these caregivers take. In many cases this is a parent/s. In many cultures it may also include extended family/grandparents/older siblings, and in some rare cases where there are no same species attachments available can involve animal attachments or inanimate objects. Attachment is vital for development as we need it to grow and learn, so much so that the complete absence of secure attachment is associated with death or developmental problems. Important processes that develop during attachment include emotional regulation (how you learn to soothe yourself during times of stress and distress), behavioural impulse control (how well you can resist urges and desires), and how well you learn to hear the emotional distress in others and respond appropriately (e.g., empathy and compassion).
The attachment experience of a child is found to persist into their adolescence and adulthood so that it is “relatively robust” over a lifespan, according to longitudinal attachment researcher's like Alan Sroufe. This forms the foundation for adult relationships and the ability to seek out and maintain intimacy, closeness, and sexual behaviour that is unlikely to cause distress and impairment. A good enough attachment sets someone up for optimal mental health, optimal relationships, and also impacts on physical health and a strong immune system.
In attachment that goes well (secure attachment - i.e., caregivers who meet a child’s needs well enough most of the time) a child usually learns three core belief frameworks 1) I am loved and worthwhile, 2) others are generally consistent and safe to seek comfort from, 3) the world is a mostly safe place and I feel equipped to explore it.
Processes in the brain and nervous system then fire in ways that mean the child can experience attachment related stress (e.g., separation, emotional or physical distress, a fear response), seek safety/comfort from a caregiver, and thus develop internal abilities to soothe themselves (for example, thoughts like “this is really scary, but I can get through this, what’s going to help me feel better right now”). This process allows a child to integrate both logical (cognitive) and emotional (threat response) brain systems and to behave in ways that are helpful.
It’s important to note that simply meeting a child’s physical and cognitive needs is not sufficient for a secure attachment to form. The crux of a secure attachment is to do with emotional distress and how it’s handled. A response like “Oh I can see you’re really disappointed about that; you were hoping to …” is far better than caregivers who tell a child to stop crying or that they are "alright" when they are clearly distressed.
Around 50% of the population achieve secure attachment (depending on the country/cultural practice and research study). The remaining 50% of the population fall into three adaptive attachment categories, meaning that the brain develops clever strategies to manage the attachment experience. I refer to these techniques as Amplifier's, Minimiser's, and Fluctuator's.
It’s important to highlight that although these patterns may develop, it is not usually due to a destructive intention from the caregiver but rather a combination of caregiver-child match (e.g., temperament and personality of the child and caregivers), the caregivers own attachment style, and other life events that can impact on attachment such as losses, separation, illness, developing substance use or mental health problems, and trauma or abuse. While people sometimes fit neatly into one pattern, attachment style is best understood as a continuum that we all fall on. To make it more complex, there can also be different attachment styles with different caregivers (i.e., secure attachment with mother but anxious attachment with father).
Amplification (known as anxious or preoccupied attachment in the literature)
Infants and children have very little control over things in their environment and are both resilient and vulnerable. Amplification of emotional needs is one adaptive strategy an infant or child has to attempt to secure the attention and response of an inconsistent caregiver. This may involve increased crying and vocalising of distress, physical actions such as attempting to hold onto the caregiver, or “tantrum” type behaviour. These behaviours become learnt when a caregiver is not sufficiently consistent with responding to that child. The child forms three key belief frameworks 1) I am unloved but needy and dependent, 2) others are not always there for me, may be insensitive, 3) the world is a scary place to be approached with caution and trepidation.
Emotions are experienced as overwhelming and unbearable with few resources available to self-soothe. The individual learns to seek reassurance seek so as to regulate this distress, and may experience hypersensitivity, anxiety, attention seeking behaviour, and heightened anxious arousal. In terms of relationships, intimacy and sex, those who amplify distress tend to struggle to maintain a relationship. They may have less condom use (finding it risky to ask a partner to wear protection due to fear of rejection), more numerous sexual partners, and use sex as a way to elicit a caring response from a partner or to avoid perceived abandonment. This type of sexual behaviour may cause them distress and impairment in terms of unintended pregnancies, catching STI’s, multiple partners etc.
Minimisation (known as avoidant or dismissing attachment in the literature)
The second adaptive strategy that an infant or child has access to is that of shutting down their visible signs of distress and switching off from acknowledging their own distress or needs. While this occurs at a cognitive level, physiological markers of distress find that the distress remains in the body, just not consciously. This approach helps the infant/child in situations where caregivers are unavailable or neglectful of emotional needs, as to long for a parent and to be rejected or ignored is painful and unworkable. In such cases the caregiver themselves may have learnt to be a minimiser of their own needs through their own attachment experiences, or they may be unavailable for other reasons, such as being very distracted and caught up in their own life (this may occur with a depressed or chronically ill parent, a parent with a substance disorder, or a parent who is juggling a lot of other responsibilities). The individual learns three key belief frameworks 1) I am unloved but self-reliant, 2) others are unavailable and let me down so don’t get too close, 3) I am a free agent to explore this world with little emotional connection to others.
Emotions are experienced as overwhelming and to be avoided, got rid of, and never shared with others. Avoidant behaviours are used to help soothe and switch off (e.g., alcohol or other drugs, compulsive use of internet, shopping, porn or seeking multiple short term relationship, gambling, eating, working). Relationship, intimacy, and sexual behaviour associated with this involves casual sex/low desire for monogamy, solitary behaviour (e.g., masturbation and porn), and sex is used as an attachment strategy to “get close but stay far away.” This is prone to causing distress and impairment to others.
Fluctuation (known as fearful or disorganised attachment in the literature)
A fourth insecure attachment style – disorganised attachment (sometimes termed fearful attachment) - was introduced by Main and Soloman (1990), as they observed that some experiences of insecure attachment were not consistent with preoccupied or dismissing attachment. Fearful attachment was suggested to be the most severe of the insecure patterns as it was often associated with unpredictable experiences of abuse, neglect, or trauma, whereby the caregiver was also a source of physical or emotional threat. This incongruence results in confused behaviour or "fluctuating between states", as the biological drive to seek comfort from the caregiver is countered by the biological drive to escape danger which is caused by the caregiver.
Fluctuator's experience heightened emotional arousal, and oscillate between preoccupied and dismissing emotional regulation strategies (e.g., amplifying or minimising), with neither approach successfully alleviating their distress. The individual see's themselves as unloved, and others are viewed as rejecting, threatening, or unpredictable. Those with fearful attachments have learnt that they can only rely on themselves, and so limited attachment is formed towards others. While this can be a necessary survival strategy for a child with a neglecting or abusive caregiver, it becomes maladaptive as the attachment style becomes entrenched and affects the ability to share, trust, and experience intimacy in adulthood. In terms of sexual behaviour, fearful attachment was found to be associated with ‘short-term mating’ (multiple sexual partners, brief sexual relationships, or casual sex) in a large international study. Fearful attachment has also been associated with low sexual desire in other cases.
When it comes to attachment, it is vital to remember that whatever style develops for an individual is adaptive to their survival within the caregiving experience that they receive. For example, an infant with a dismissing style who has shut down their emotional response is able to remain near their caregiver (proximity for physical safety) while an infant with a preoccupied style is able to increase responsivity by staying hypervigilent to caregiver availability. Those with a fearful attachment who both seek and fear proximity to their caregiver will use proximity monitoring and avoidance as required to maintain their survival. However, individual’s using these adaptive strategies when they are no longer required can experience difficulties over their life span, such as in forming close and intimate adult relationships.
While attachment style is generally "robust" across the lifespan, there is much that can be done to work towards becoming aware of an insecure attachment and then responding in new ways to triggers in the now (i.e., adult relationships). Therapy is one of the ways in which corrective attachment experiences may occur, as new emotional regulation strategies can be learnt and practised, new experiences of close relationships are forged, and intimacy skills are acquired and tested in real world relationships. This eventually means that amplifying, minimising, or fluctuating tendencies no longer solely dictate relationship behaviour.
Faisandier, K.M. (2015). Effective Intimacy? Evaluating Intimacy Focused Therapy for Out-of-Control Sexual Behaviour. (Unpublished doctoral thesis, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand).